The Pittsburgh Pirates could have an opportunity to buy a prospect from the Los Angeles Dodgers by taking on this outfielder’s contract.
During the 2018-2019 off-season, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed former Arizona Diamondback All-Star, A.J. Pollock outfielder to a 4-year, $60 million contract. The contract was a bit of an odd decision to start with as the team, at the time, had a handful of outfielders at their disposal. Now, Pollock, despite being paid a hefty amount the next few years, is currently projected to have nothing more than a platoon role with the Dodgers. Plus, with a few high-end players about to hit free agency, the Dodgers could be looking to shed the contract. The Pittsburgh Pirates could be that team to take on Pollock’s contract.
Last year, Pollock basically did not do anything differently from the two seasons prior. In 2017 and 2018, Pollock combined to hit .261/.323/.477 with a 103 OPS+ and 107 wRC+. In both seasons, he reached double digits in both home runs and stolen bases. That includes a 21 home runs in 2018 and 20 stolen base 2017.
His offensive output was also paired with excellent center field defense (+10 DRS, 0.5 UZR, 5.3 range runs above average). In 2019, Pollock posted a .266/.327/.468 line with 15 home runs, and a 108 OPS+/wRC+ and 98 DRC+. He also is in the top 76th percentile of hard hit rate. However, he did see a downturn in defense having -10 DRS, -7 total zone runs above average, a -7.2 UZR and -4.3 range runs above average.
But the biggest concern that comes with Pollock is his health. Pollock only has one season under his belt where he stepped to the plate 500 or more times. Last year, he played just 86 games and collected 342 plate appearances. In 2017 and 2018, he played just 112 and 113 games with 460 and 466 plate appearances.
You clearly don’t want to be stuck with a higher paid Lonnie Chisenhall, but Pollock is healthy enough to still provide value for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pollock provides some power from center field, something the Pittsburgh Pirates as a team are lacking overall. Since 2017, Pollock averages 26 home runs with a .475 slugging percentage in a full season. A .475 slugging percentage would project to be the Pirates’ second best power hitter.
If the Pirates were to take on all of Pollock’s remaining salary, which is $15 million in 2020, $18 million in 2021, and $13 million in 2022, they have to get something back pretty valuable. If I were the Pirates, I would definitely ask about their top catching prospect, Keibert Ruiz. Ruiz is the 88th best prospect in all of baseball. Last year, he batted just .261/.331/.347 with 6 home runs in 350 plate appearances (310 at Double-A, 40 at Triple-A). However he did post much better numbers at Triple-A, finishing off on a strong note that includes a .824 OPS.
Ruiz’s best tool is hit bat. If he were to be traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, he would immediately become the team’s highest graded bat tool prospect. FanGraphs gives him a current grade of 55 with a future of 70, which is the best hitting grade among his position by FanGraphs. Among all prospects, he is in the top 5. He isn’t a big power hitter, with a 30 current, 35 future power grade with potential of 50 in terms of raw power, but what you really want to focus on is his fielding. Ruiz grades out as a slightly above average fielder with a 50 grade per FanGraphs and 55 per MLB Pipeline. In the minors, he has a solid 25% caught stealing rate.
Ruiz is currently blocked in the Majors. After a strong, albeit short, 2019 rookie season, another former top prospect – Will Smith – is primed for regular playing time behind the dish next season and beyond. The 24-year-old blasted 15 home runs in only 196 plate appearances. He also posted pretty good defensive numbers, along with above average defensive grades (55 future fielding, 60 future arm).
Plus, the Dodgers are going to want to free up as much money as possible. Next off-season, they’ll see outfielders Joc Pederson and Mookie Betts hit free agency. They could also lose a Swiss Army Knife in utility man Kiki Hernandez to free agency. That’s not mentioning the possible extensions they might want to explore with their young core of Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Walker Buehler and the aforementioned Smith.
Now, yes, Ruiz is a pretty big prospect. It wasn’t long ago he was ranked as a consensus top 40 prospect in all of baseball. The Pirates should be willing to throw in a sweetner in the deal in order to land such a prospect. Kevin Kramer is currently ranked as the team’s 20th best prospect. He may have only produced a 92 wRC+ and .752 OPS at Triple-A last year, but in 2018, the former 2nd round pick put up much better numbers including a 141 wRC+ and .856 OPS. Plus he can play second base, third base, has a little bit of experience at shortstop and the outfield so if they were to lose Hernandez to free agency, he could replace him as their utility man. A few other possible throw-in prospects I could see taking Kramer’s spot are Will Craig, or Jason Martin.
There are two possible snags I do see in this. One is whether or not the Dodgers are confident in re-signing Betts and or Pederson. The Dodgers gave up a lot, including former top 20 prospect outfielder Alex Verdugo for Betts, and there’s a possibility he never suits up in a regular season game for the Dodgers. If they are able to re-sign Betts, then the possibility of an Pollock salary dump goes up.
But if they aren’t able to re-sign Betts, the only current outfielder under control past 2021 that isn’t Pollock is just Bellinger. The other is their confidence in Smith’s ability to continue his strong numbers from 2019. After all, it was less than 200 plate appearances. In the Betts trade, they sent Connor Wong, a utility prospect who’s primary position is catcher, to the Boston Red Sox. They don’t really have another MLB ready option on hand if Smith falters.
Regardless, a salary dump trade involving the Pittsburgh Pirates acquiring Pollock isn’t too far-fetched. The Bucs would be acquiring a consistent bat for center field until prospect Travis Swaggerty is ready, and the Dodgers relieve themselves of some cash in order to either free up money to offer to free agents, or to give them a bit of breathing room if they do land a big time free agent. The Pittsburgh Pirates would also benefit in getting a top-tier catching prospect for taking on Pollock’s contract, a prospect that will be blocked if he stays in the Dodger organization.